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Emergency Down hand signal to drop your dog at a distance

By Michele Welton, Dog Trainer, Breed Selection Consultant, Author of 15 Dog Books

pit bull lying down on the grassThere's one final Down exercise to teach your dog.

  • It's impressive.
  • It will wow your friends.
  • It could save your dog's life.

Suppose your dog gets away from you at the worst possible time and runs across the street. You call him. He turns to come back to you.

But there is a car coming.

Sometimes "Come" isn't the best word to use to gain control of your dog. Sometimes you just want him to stop dead in his tracks and stay there until you get to him.

Emergency Down hand signal

You raise your right arm high in the air – a sharp, definitive gesture, all five fingers pointing toward the sky and your palm facing your dog. This dramatic signal is clearly visible from afar. Your dog drops like a stone to the ground and stays put while the car whizzes past.

black and white collie lying down quickly on the grass

See the value of the Emergency Down? Let's teach it!

Step #1 of the Emergency Down

In my previous article, we taught your dog to lie down while he was sitting beside you or just in front of you.

In real life, the Emergency Down  is always done with your dog moving around somewhere in front of you.

So the first step is to show your dog that the word "Down" applies no matter where he is in relation to you. Plus we're going to introduce that all-important hand signal.

  1. Put him in a Sit-Stay and stand facing him, directly in front of him, only a step or two away.
  2. The first hand signal we're going to teach will be a blend of the Emergency Down  signal (a raised arm) and then the original Down  signal (a sweeping gesture toward the ground). We start with the blended signal because when you're directly in front of your dog and very close to him, he can't see your raised arm very well without craning his neck back, which is awkward.
  3. As you give the blended signal, say "Down". If he's confused, take the leash below the clip and tug it gently downward. If you've done a thorough job teaching this word in my previous article, he should go right down.
  4. Once he's down, tell him he's a gooood boy and caution him, "Stay." Step back to the end of the leash and wait about 10 seconds. Then walk back to him, just as you did when you were teaching him the Down-Stay and say, "Okay!"

Now it's just a matter of repetition and increasing distance. Don't increase distance too quickly, else he will start taking a few steps toward you instead of immediately lying down in his original position. Why is that bad?

Well, remember the example where your dog was across the street and a car was coming. If you gave the down signal and he ran several feet toward you before lying down, he might be under the wheels of the car.

So be a bit picky when teaching this. You want your dog to lie down as quickly and as close to his original position as possible.

rough collie lying down quickly on the grass

As you increase your distance, switch to the new hand signal – raising your arm high in the air and holding it up there. He can see that signal clearly from a distance.

Oh, and no matter how far away from your dog you are, once he has gone down, you should always return to him before you release him.

Why? Because the Emergency Down is meant to stop your dog in his tracks  and have him stay put.  After you've succeeded in doing that, shouting "Okay" or even "Come" would put him in motion again. Not what you want.

And if he learns in practice that you will sometimes shout "Okay" or "Come", he'll be listening for that in real life.... when all you want him to be focused on is, "Must stay here. My owner will come to me."

Now, if you're planning to compete with your dog in obedience trials, there IS an exercise where you down your dog at a distance and then call him to you. But for training family dogs, I prefer to make the Emergency Down simple and unambiguous. That means teaching "Lie down immediately and wait for me to come get you."

Step #2 of the Emergency Down

Now he must learn to lie down when he's moving around.

At first, keep him on leash and wander around your yard with him. When his attention is elsewhere, say his name, "Jake!"

He should turn to look at you. Give the signal and say, "Down."

Once he's doing well when you're holding the leash, drop your end of the leash and let him drag it around the yard. "Jake!" and when he makes eye contact, signal and say "Down!"

If he goes down immediately, caution him to "Stay!" Walk toward him, repeating your caution to "Stay. Stay." When you reach him, crouch down and pet him and praise him softly. Then release him with "Okay" and really praise him!

If he didn't go down:

  1. Go get him, whether he's just standing there or whether he's wandered elsewhere.
  2. Get hold of his leash and lead him to the spot where he was originally standing when you told him to lie down.
  3. Use the leash to put him down there, fairly sternly. Tell him, "Stay."
  4. Then walk back to where YOU were originally standing. Wait 10 seconds to make sure he's staying put.
  5. Then return to him. Crouch down and pet him and praise him softly. Make sure he stays down. Then release him with, "Okay!"

This can be a stressful exercise, so do only one or two Emergency Downs in a row. Then play with your dog!

Michele Welton with BuffyAbout the author: Michele Welton has over 40 years of experience as a Dog Trainer, Dog Breed Consultant, and founder of three Dog Training Centers. An expert researcher and author of 15 books about dogs, she loves helping people choose, train, and care for their dogs.

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